Your baby’s communication skills develop rapidly during her first few years of life. Her language skills progress as she learns the nuances of body language, listening, and talking. Her abilities to draw, to write, and to read are also emerging at this time. During her first three years, your child is able to learn another language as a native speaker with more ease than if she studies that language in school later on.
Your baby learns from her environment and culture by imitating and repeating your words. One theory of language development proposes that the human brain is innately wired to learn a universal language. Your child is naturally ready to learn language quickly and without instruction on rules and grammar. When you stimulate your baby’s natural instincts, you can support her in optimizing her language development.
All languages have representations and symbols that young children identify, remember, and categorize. When your baby organizes and categorizes these images in her mind, she lays the groundwork for language, as well as for other aspects of cognitive development. For example, playing with toys and puzzles that involve sorting and stacking helps her develop building blocks for thinking and communication.
Language has a powerful influence on your child’s development in many areas. The ability to communicate influences her interactive and imaginative skills; language affects her cognitive processes and gives her opportunities for many types of success; and her sense of self, identity, culture, and place in the world are linked to her ability to communicate.
You can help your child develop her communication skills by recognizing her developmental stages and being aware that she is developing language skills starting at birth. Communicate with your baby by being present, listening, reading, and responding to her cries and other cues. Communication is a two-way street; reciprocity is a critical part of the process.
Before your child has words, her main way of relating with you is nonverbal communication through her body. She makes facial expressions and eye movements, wrinkles her nose, covers her eyes, turns away, kicks, pulls her legs up, and arches her back. Your baby uses body language to tell you that she is tired, bored, or interested in interacting and playing. She also reads, interprets, and responds to your gestures, movements, and body language.
Your child’s body language consists of building blocks for the representations and symbols she will use to communicate through spoken language later on. In the beginning, her gestures are reflexes that she does not control. For example, she initially grasps an object as a reflex to something touching her palm. Then over her first year, she develops the ability to consciously override the automatic reflexes to achieve more purposeful actions. She learns to intentionally grasp an object, to hold it, or she may choose not to grasp it just because it touched her palm.
You can support your child in developing her body language as a tool by paying attention and then responding to the needs that she expresses in a timely period through her movements and gestures. Your responses let her know that you understand and value her and what she is telling you. Pay attention and listen to what she is communicating. Before she has words, your baby can communicate to you with simple signs, such as waving good-bye, shaking her head for “no,” or nodding for “yes.” Body language may provide clues to your child’s physical and emotional feelings, as well as her state of mind. Just as you can read your baby’s body language, you can also communicate your feelings with her through your body language.
Your baby starts learning language long before she begins to talk. She learns words by listening to the tone and inflection of your voice, by experiencing repetition, and by associating objects and experiences with words. Listening is a receptive form of communication through which your baby can learn about feelings even though she does not know the words and meanings behind it.
When learning language, she prefers to hear your voice rather than a recorded one.
By listening to language, your baby acquires linguistic knowledge and structure without formal teaching. Like a sponge, she takes in the words that you say, and eventually she starts to mimic the sounds that she hears and the movements that she sees your mouth and tongue make. When learning language, she prefers to hear your voice rather than a recorded one.
You can help your child develop her listening skills by engaging with her in conversation, telling her stories, singing to her, and reading to her. You may feel silly talking to a one-month-old baby about what you are doing, what you are serving for dinner, or where you are going. However, when you give her your attention and communicate with her, you recognize her and show her respect. When you give her opportunities to listen, you help her to understand the rhythm of speech, to build her vocabulary, and develop the language skills that will enable her to talk to you.
Talking is an active form of communication because it involves expressing and vocalizing sounds. In her first three years, your baby starts with simple sounds. Then the sounds get more complex as her oral structure develops. The first sounds your baby makes are vowel sounds, and then she learns sounds with consonants, such as “papa,” “mama,” “baba,” and “dada.” Her speech develops in the following order: crying, cooing, vocal experimentation, babbling, saying single words, repeating your words, saying two-word sentences and phrases, and saying three- and four-word sentences.
Verbal skills are recognized as important components of intelligence. As your baby learns to talk, her language skills and cognitive functions build upon each other. In your baby’s first 18 months, she instinctively absorbs the sounds around her and learns the rules of language. You can help your child develop her speaking skills by providing her with a language-rich environment. You can reinforce her confidence to talk and express herself by being present, paying attention, and listening to her. Everyday talk helps her build her vocabulary. Repeat her words as a way of acknowledging her. Finally, consider her current level of language development and then offer stimulation to move her to the next.
Writing and reading
Drawing, which helps your child connect words with images, is the foundation for writing and reading. At first, your child may draw as a kinesthetic activity without relating her drawing to concepts. Later, she learns to make a mark that relates to something, and then she makes associations with patterns and symbols on paper. If she puts dots on a circle for eyes to make a face, or draws petals to make a flower, then she is connecting symbols and concepts. Puzzles and shape sorters help her learn the shapes on which letters are based—for example, triangles, circles, and squares. At some point she will understand that the symbols connect with words and that writing and reading are forms of communication.
Reading and writing open the world of literacy for your child, and this discovery can shape and transform her life. Literacy is key to learning, communication, quality of life, career and financial success, and the ability to function and contribute to society. Literacy enables your baby to process information, to create concepts, and to develop her imagination.
You can help your child learn writing and reading skills by talking, singing, reading, writing, storytelling, drawing, and playing games with her. Materials for drawing and writing include crayons, markers, sidewalk chalk, pencils, and finger paint. Matching shapes, colors, and logos can help your child recognize letters. Model the enjoyment of reading by establishing a time when she looks at her books while you read to yourself. Take your child to story time at the library, and get her a library card of her own. Above all, make reading and writing fun and relaxing activities that you enjoy together.
Healthy babies are born with the potential to hear and speak any language. Children who consistently hear the different sounds of two languages during this time develop the neural pathways to speak more easily as a native speaker in both languages. If a child hears certain sounds regularly, then her neurons are strengthened for recognizing and using those sounds. If she does not hear those sounds regularly, those neurons will be pruned, or discarded. Your baby’s brain is shaped by what it hears; she learns by repeated exposure. The optimal learning time for formal language education is from 6 to 10 years old. After she is 10 years old, learning a second language requires significantly more effort.
Learning two or more languages can provide lifelong benefits to your child. It can enhance her memory, creativity, flexibility, and ability to focus. It also improves literacy skills by giving her a greater understanding of words, better reading skills, and more avenues for abstract thinking. Bilingualism can help form a bridge between cultures and offers social advantages as well. Even a small amount of exposure to a second language can provide cognitive and academic benefits.
You can help your child become bilingual or incorporate another language into her daily life by providing her with experiences that expose her to another language. If you speak a second language, talking to her in that language is the best way for her to learn it. Give her the same experiences that help her learn any language—for example, reading books, telling stories, and singing songs. When you add movement, emotion, and music to words, your child can easily assimilate, associate, and remember new words.
Engage with your child and explore together to discover experiences that support learning a new language. Travel to the country of the second language to immerse her in the culture of the language and to promote experiential learning. Eating at a nearby restaurant and pronouncing the names of foods such as sushi, crepes, tacos, or pad thai will help your child make connections between words and objects.